There comes a time in your life when you remember where you’re from. Fillmore, North Dakota is that place for me, and last week was the time. The former railroad town of Fillmore turned 100 this year, you see, so we had a week-long celebration of a place that doesn’t really exist, save for a few abandoned buildings and the tiny gravel street grid of a town that never exceeded 150 in population. Today it lives on in the hearts and minds of a lucky few. I am one of them.
How does one explain what just happened in this little place? It was an intoxicating swirl of activities, each with the signature of home. Pork and beef roast dinners were served each night under a tent. Photos of the town band and baseball team from the 1930’s hung on the walls of the old Lutheran Church. Livestock trailers lined the perimeter of the street dances. People who’d been students in the former four-room schoolhouse reunited.
A horse-drawn carriage pulled people around town. The petting zoo and blacksmith shop entertained children. I ate a bag of cotton candy, and the French toast at breakfast was served with rhubarb sauce. My dad made a parade float about our family being landowners by Fillmore in three centuries. I’d wanted to make t-shirts that said, “Rendahl: A first-ring suburb since 1898.”
Over a thousand people attended the event. It was the most people this place had ever seen at one time. Again and again I told people what I learned from my dad just the other day: “This is actually the centennial of the moving of Fillmore. It was originally founded in 1904 as a stagecoach stop a half mile south of here.” I wondered what the stagecoach driver would think of my used Audi A4 that I drove from the farm looking like I’d gone mud bogging.
Nearly every evening I sat by a bonfire with others who call Fillmore a home of sorts. Ashes, they say, can be used to clean dishes, repel insects, fight mildew, and remove water spots from furniture. We sat there all night, drinking and talking, while the ashes and words exfoliated my spirit. During the ecumenical church service, the priest asked us to dress ourselves with God’s compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. I struggled to hold back my tears, grateful for my sunglasses as I played and sang, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
None of us is defined by a singular life event, though some fundamentally change us. Along the journey, we are defined by a conversation with a stranger, by a well-timed story, by an intense gaze that says something more than words could express. It’s all at once terrifying and exhilarating. We lose control but gain identity. We break down but stand up.
I am sentimental to a fault. I’m still wearing my two street dance entrance bracelets several nights after the second dance. In orthodox churches in Syria, they tied strings around my wrists and said I should wear them until they fall off, that that is the tradition. So, as if I’ve been on a pilgrimage, I continue to wear them as reminders of these days.
To be from somewhere is to know there is a place for you, that there are people for you. It matters little if or how you’ve lost your way, or whether you were in the right place to begin with. What matters is accepting the good that was granted to you through no wisdom of your own.
I left in need of a nap and a car wash. But I also left fortified by the people and the memories that make up the walls of this corner of the prairie. In a variation on the words of the famous Armenian poet Paruyr Sevak: We are few, but we are from Fillmore.